What Makes A “Good” Person?

This past weekend I saw a play at Steppenwolf Theater in downtown Chicago that spurred me to question the nature of being a good person and how given circumstances affect that attribute. The play, called Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire, is about a woman, Margie Walsh, who loses her job at a dollar store in South Boston. After reaching out to an old flame Mike, a boy who left her neighborhood and became a successful doctor, she realizes the power of a secret from the past and the effect it may have had on her current life and money troubles. The play dissects the dangerous consequences of choosing to hold on to the past or leaving it behind.

As the play struggled with issues- race, loyalty, friendship, choices, and luck, I continued to focus on the title Good People. And as those two words were brought up again and again throughout the production, their meanings shifted. What does it really mean to be a “good person”? And what happens when a bad thing happens to a good person?

Rabbi Harold Kushner addresses this question in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Undeniably, this is a question that permeates many facets of life and is not limited to religion. Kushner questions the cause of suffering. Most theology assumes that God is the force behind it. But Kushner argues through the use of the story of Job that misfortunes do not come from God, but result from living in a world that is truly free. He says, “some misfortunes are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws…Because the tragedy is not God’s will, we need not feel hurt or betrayed by God when tragedy strikes.”

So what are we supposed to do when tragedy strikes? What are we supposed to do when people lose their jobs or when another type of rocket strikes?

The play ended on a hopeful note, but life often occurs differently. Margie continues her pursuit for a job and decides that keeping her secret may not be the best option for her as it is certainly the better option for everyone else and their families. But we, as the audience, are forced to ask “what if?” What if she made a different choice? What if her circumstances had been different? Maybe then the bad things would not happen to her and she would get a break. Maybe then she would not be a good person. Maybe everything would be cosmically different and causality would take charge. But it did not and the fact remains that she is a good person who is suffering. So how do we deal with that?

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